You’re either a Sydney kind of person, or a Melbourne kind of person, as any Aussie or ex-pat will tell you. While Australia’s most populous city is famous for its scorching climate, plethora of beaches and iconic sights (hello, Sydney Opera House, hi Harbour Bridge), its second biggest is known for its more European sensibility, with the coffee culture, foodie scene, varied climate and architecture that goes with it. Voted the world’s most liveable city seven years in a row, it boasts an easy-to-use public transport system, with free tram travel within the central business district (CBD), a varied landscape, with the lush Botanical Gardens, Yarra River and St Kilda Beach, and a new restaurant seemingly opening every week. It’s just as good if you’re a tourist, too, with endless free public Wi-Fi hotspots, visitor centres in every district and countless attractions to enjoy, from seeing an Aussie Rules game at the world-famous MCG, to taking in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Sure, Sydney may be flashy, but Melbourne might have more depth.
How To Get There
We began our Aussie adventure in the most comfortable manner possible: at the Emirates Lounge at Heathrow Airport. If you’re a nervous flier, there’s really nothing better to get you in the zone than kicking back in the lounge with a glass (or two) of champagne and grabbing a bite to eat before embarking on your journey. On the return trip, we had a longer layover in Dubai, so made full use of the Business Lounge there, having a much-needed shower (there are towels, toiletries, hairdryers - and even combs and razors - provided) plus endless coffees and even a smoked salmon bagel. The flights themselves surprisingly flew by (excuse the pun), despite getting less sleep than anticipated purely due to the high quality of films available to watch on board - hello, Oscar season movies! After watching Shape of Water, Get Out and Three Billboards, we managed a little shut-eye, facilitated by a hearty meal, served on real crockery (makes all the difference) and glass of red (not to mention the handy eye mask and earplugs provided). Meal choices were ambitious for an airplane, with the lamb sausages and mashed potato being a particular hit, and the mid-flight snack of cheese and spinach pide, a kind of Turkish flatbread, going down a treat. Arriving in Melbourne seemingly in the blink of an eye later, we were thankful we had opted for Emirates (and the toothbrush kit).
Where To Stay
Voted Melbourne's favourite hotel, the QT boasts a triple threat of spacious design-led rooms, one of the biggest rooftop bars in the city and European-bistro restaurant catering to 120 diners. Built on the site of a former cinema in the so-called 'Paris-end' of Collins Street, the interiors reflect its heritage and location, with an emphasis on local talent from collaborations with laneways graffiti artists to using Yarra Valley wines in the mini-bar. Melbourne's foodie heritage is also celebrated, with three eateries (the Cake Shop, Hot Sauce laneways bar and Pascale bistro restaurant) plus a Japanese knife shop for budding and established chefs to buy their tools. No wonder local Melbournians raised an eyebrow when we said we were staying there.
Australia's first design hotel boasts one of the best addresses in Melbourne, located on trendy Flinders Lane, a stone's throw from some of the city's most popular restaurants, bars and attractions. If the unique artworks on display throughout the hotel lobby and rooms aren't impressive enough, then maybe the rooftop pool and bar might sway you, or Om Nom, the dessert-only restaurant. With a refillable free mini-bar plus welcome drink from the hotel's coffee wagon, it's the little touches that make the Adelphi feel like home despite its decadent furnishings.
Ovolo Laneways is all about the little details. Located in the heart of the CBD, its unassuming exterior hides the spacious and stylish suites inside, which include a living room with Apple TV, kitchen area with microwave and fridge, dining table, separate bedroom and bathroom. Decorated in minimal white with local artworks on the wall, Biology toiletries in the bathroom and art mags on the coffee table, it instantly feels like home – if you have excellent taste, that is. The mini-bar is free (yes, it does include alcohol), with locally-baked cupcakes left in our room on arrival too. If that's not enough freebies for you, then head down to the lobby between 6pm and 7pm daily where you can enjoy complimentary drinks as part of the hotel's 'happy hour'.
Or… rent an Airbnb
If you're looking for a bit more privacy or the chance to settle into your space a bit more, then renting an Airbnb is a great option, with a plethora of budgets, locations and sizes to choose from in Melbourne. We plucked for a one-bedroom apartment located on Little Collins Street in the CBD, close to all the major tourist attractions as well as a supermarket so we could cook meals in the open-plan kitchen. The design-led space featured artworks collected from around the world, as well as a piano, if you want to tinkle on the ivories. With all the necessary amenities – from laundry facilities to coffee-making apparatus and shampoo – it combines the best bits of staying in a hotel with renting an apartment – perfect!
What To Do
See koalas and kangaroos in the wild
You can't go to Australia without seeing its two most famous marsupials, so why not opt to see them in the wild? Echidna Walkabout Tours offers a full-day experience at You Yangs Regional Park, an hour's drive south-west of Melbourne, which encompasses two separate koala and kangaroo conservation areas. See Clancy, Australia's 'most famous koala', eating gum from eucalyptus leaves (or more likely taking a snooze – that is what they spend 80 per cent of their time doing), and track kangaroos as they move about in mobs of up to 100. On our trip, we were lucky enough to see seven koalas in one morning (something of a record), as well as a baby kangaroo joey sticking its head out of its mother's pouch. What's more, your money is going to a good cause, with the tour company funding a conservation project. Since it began, it has already discovered the devastating effects of climate change on the koala population, decreasing by 46 per cent in the past few years, and also patented a unique way of identifying koalas by their nose markings. This important research will hopefully help to increase the population, not to mention give a greater understanding of this unique species.
See the city as you dine on its Colonial Tramcar
One of the most unique ways to see the city is by dining on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, which serves a four-course lunch and three-course dinner daily. The 1948 wooden tramcar is outfitted with brass and velvet furnishings that will transport you back to the golden age of travel, mirroring Europe's famous Pullman trains and the Orient Express, while liveried waiters serve you local dishes prepared on board. During our journey, we tasted homemade dips, a charcuterie board, smoked salmon, roast beef and Chinese chicken, with a cheese course to finish. The bar is fully stocked and fully inclusive, with a glass of bubbly to get proceedings off to the right start, with local Australian wines as well as beers and spirits available too. The best bit though has to be the staff, whose humour, knowledge and silver-service training made for an unforgettable afternoon driving from South Melbourne to St Kilda and back again. The easiest way to book is through Trip Advisor, visit their website here.
Experience a local festival
A local Melbornian commented to us that there's always a festival of some sort going on in the city, and during our stay there were multiple: the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne Wine and Cheese Festival, the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show and the Melbourne Formula One. We snagged tickets the first, opting to go on one of its 'Crawl 'n' Bite' tours, where diners eat at three different restaurants in one evening, with wine pairings at each. First, we dined on jamon croquettes, sea bream ceviche and heritage tomatoes in Bar Lourhina's Chapel Room; then, a gigantic portion of duck breast parmentier at French eatery Philippe, before finishing with fresh humus, braised lamb shoulder and grains at Armenian restaurant Sezar, leaving with a very satisfied tummy indeed.
See the penguins on Phillip Island
While the kangaroos and koalas get most of the publicity when it comes to Australian wildlife, there is one other major animal attraction on offer in Victoria: the little penguins who live on Phillip Island. The nature park is located a short drive from Melbourne (approximately one hour and a half, depending on traffic), and is famous for its nightly 'Penguin Parade', where amateur Attenboroughs can spy the world's smallest penguins heading home for the night after a long day's fishing. Taking place at sunset daily, the viewing is a rare opportunity to enjoy something with your eyes rather than your smart phone, with photography absolutely banned to protect the penguins from getting spooked and losing their day's fish stocks. A general admission ticket gets you a seat on the grandstand, but we would recommend splurging for the Underground Viewing, which allows you to see the penguins at close quarters behind a glass wall, so you won't miss any waddling, running, falling or pushing as the group wanders up to their burrows (you'll also be a lot warmer as its inside). More than just a tourist attraction, the Penguin Parade helps fund conservation on the island, protecting the penguin population from pests like foxes with special cameras on the bridges. Before you leave, be sure to purchase one of the penguin cuddly toys wearing a stylish knitted jumper: proceeds from these go towards caring for penguins caught in oil slicks (and yes, the penguins do actually wear the jumpers).
Drink like a local
Melbourne is famous for its beautiful European-style laneways and arcades, but with so many to choose from, it is hard to know which ones are worth checking out. That's where Hidden Secret Tours come in. Melbourne's original walking tour, the company was set up in 2004 to celebrate the city's unique laneways and the little-known spots you might not find otherwise, celebrating local artisans, institutions and characters. With countless new bars, restaurants and other venues popping up all the time, the local guide's expertise is priceless, particularly if you want to see a different side to the city. We opted to try the newest tour, The Apertivo Tour, which took in three Melbourne bars; Union Electric, a brand-new rooftop bar that has sprung up above a restaurant in China Town; Il Barco an Italian institution offering an extensive wine list and delicious local cheese board; and finally Mill House, a bustling local beer hall frequented by CBD workers and boasting an impressive gin menu.
Do a wine tour in the Yarra Valley
You can't visit Melbourne and not make the day trip to the world-famous Yarra Valley wine region, which is a short one-hour drive from the city (just be sure to shotgun not designated driver…) The picturesque region is home to numerous vineyards, from the up-and-coming Dominique Portet to the established Oakridge Wines. The former is one of the hottest new kids on the block, having been founded by ninth-generation vintner Dominique in 2000, with his French heritage evident in the winery's signature Fontaine Rosé champagne and Cabernet Sauvignon wine to rival his native Bordeaux. Indeed, he insists on using traditional techniques, and even imports barrels from France to ensure the best quality wine. Be sure to try the 2015 blend of the Cab – it's just getting better with age – as well as the most expensive bottle, the 2013 André Cabernet Sauvignon (named after the founder's late father), if there's one open, that is... For a totally different experience, head to Oakridge Wines, whose wine list is comprehensive to say the least. Tastings can incorporate whichever wines you choose, while overlooking the scenic vineyard view. Don't leave without dining in the restaurant for lunch – we feasted on beef tartare topped with crisps, tried our first kangaroo fillet (we're sorry Skippy), and then finished our meal with a delicious local cheese board. With vegetables and herbs from the garden, plus the best quality local meat and fish, there's nowhere better to soak up the wine in the Yarra Valley.
Visit a gin distillery
The Yarra Valley is famous for its wineries, but if you're looking to experience something a little different, head to the Four Pillars gin distillery. With the quintessentially British tipple becoming more and more popular with our cousins Down Under, more and more boutique gin distilleries are popping up to counter the increasing demand. One of the originals was Four Pillars, set up in 2013 but already sold around the world despite its tiny size. Indeed, there's a Willy Wonka-esque feel to the place, with its bronze stills (each named after a founder's mother), pots of local botanical ingredients and avant garde recipes, which include infusing gin with whole Christmas puddings, or storing it in wine casks to give it a Chardonnay or Shiraz taste (the latter was wildly popular last year), making for a magical atmosphere. It's this spirit of experimentation and fun that has helped make Four Pillars so popular, in an already over-saturated industry: no mean feat for a 5-year-old. Tastings can either be done straight or with a gin and tonic paddle, but we would recommend the former, so you can try everything from the Sherry Cask Gin to the Spiced Negroni.
Experience the iconic Queen Victoria Market at night
Imagine all of London's street food markets combined, and you'll be close to picturing the sheer scale of Melbourne's iconic Queen Victoria Night Market, which takes place every Wednesday from 5pm-10pm in the summer months. Celebrating its 20th year in 2018, the foodie event returned for a blockbuster 21-week season, with more than 60 global street food stalls, bars, stalls and live entertainment. On our visit, we spotted an Arancini van, Greek souvlaki spits, a Brazilian barbeque, Korean steamed bao buns, gnocci connoisseurs, stone-baked pizzas and pulled pork buns, to name but a few of the countless street food options. New options for this year include Poke Doke sushi-filled doughnuts, Peruvian bites at Pachamama and gin cocktails from the Melbourne Gin Company. With communal tables inside and outside, plenty of toilets, water bottle fill-up points and live music and performances in several spots, it's an ideal place to while away a balmy Melbourne evening with friends without spending a fortune.
Fly to Melbourne from London Heathrow with Emirates from £709 return. Visit emirates.com to book. For more information on everything here and to book trips and tickets, please visit visitmelbourne.com